Every March 9, Ukraine celebrates the birthday of its national poet, Taras Shevchenko, by awarding the Shevchenko Prize, the state’s arts prize. It’s usually a festive occasion, but this year’s announcement took place against the backdrop of a reminder of who Shevchenko was, and of what, in his short life, he had fought for.
Shevchenko was a writer whose poems many Ukrainians know by heart and a painter whose images are everywhere in Ukraine. He was also an advocate of independence who was jailed, “under the strictest surveillance, without the right to write or paint,” for the crime of writing poems in the language Russians called “Little Russian,” and which Ukrainians called Ukrainian.
This year, my Ukrainian publisher, Anetta Antonenko, was delighted that one of her authors, Natalia Vorozhbyt, won the Shevchenko Prize for her play Bad Roads, which draws from interviews with real people in the Russian-occupied Donbass region.
It was a rare bright moment in an otherwise dark time. Anetta, these days, has been committed to exercising regularly (“in peacetime, I neglected this”), in part by bringing bread to the birds in her Kyiv neighborhood. She’s handed over her gun to the Territorial Defense (“They need it more and they have ammunition”), and she’s been stockpiling food for her cats, who have no idea there’s a war on: “They give me joy and peace.” She depends on the fresh vegetables brought in by an Azerbaijani grocer, and she tries to work on a regular schedule: She’s got a novel by Isabel Allende on deck, and a series of biographies, including a series on dictators—Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Tito, Salazar—that centers on the question of whether “one person could become the engine of history.”
It’s a scarily relevant question today. And it also raises the question of what a regular person can do in the face of such Men of Destiny. Antonenko assures me that Ukrainian culture is every bit as engaged in the struggle against the country she calls by the derogatory “Rashka.” The term is derived from the English pronunciation of Russia, complete with the diminutive suffix to convey extra venom. Not one to mince words, she calls that country “the scum of the earth, looters and cowards, who don’t even collect the bodies of their dead soldiers, who blow up maternity hospitals, who erase peaceful towns from the face of the earth, who even attacked Babyn Yar” (better known in the West as Babi Yar).
Ukraine’s cultural vanguard has responded unanimously. Musicians have joined the army to defend Kyiv. Actors and poets are recording commercials. The symphony orchestra played in Kyiv’s central square. The writer Oksana Zabuzhko spoke in the European Parliament; the singer Taras Borovok recorded a song in praise of the Turkish Bayraktar drone; and a legend of the Ukrainian stage, the 84-year-old Ada Rogovtseva, is washing soldiers’ clothes.
I was not surprised to learn of such unity in a nation under attack. But I was surprised to hear, in the voice of my smiling, scholarly, bird-feeding friend, how deeply and viscerally she hated Russia. Everything about it. There were none of the terms we have come to expect in these situations—about how we don’t hate the Iranian people, say, just their government. She loathes all of it, including all of its people who, in her view, passively allowed this disaster to happen. “I will spit on them. I will never sit at the same table with them. Proud Ukraine is unlikely to forgive.”
This attitude extends to Russian culture. “The great Russian culture is as much of a myth as the great Russian army,” Antonenko said. “The real Russian culture is the enemy of everything progressive. All, absolutely all Russian culture is built on loyalty to the tsar-father. If they allowed a fascist and a psychopath to rule them for 22 years, they’re not a nation. Dostoevsky or Tchaikovsky hide the reality that Russian culture is a culture of slaves who do whatever the king says. We’ve tried to warn the world for years. Haven’t you seen what they write to their relatives in Ukraine? Telling people who are being attacked by missiles that there’s no war on?”
Volodymyr Sheiko, the director-general of the Ukrainian Institute, the state organization that promotes Ukrainian culture, made the same points, in only slightly more diplomatic terms. The West, he says, wants to “reconcile” Ukrainians with Russia through “dialogue” (the quotes are his)—“of course, without asking Ukrainians if we desire such happiness.” He mocks all those heads of museums, philharmonics, and festivals who say they cannot live without the “great Russian culture”—without being able to name a single Ukrainian director or composer. He has no time for “Good Russians” and “victims of the regime” (the quotes, again, are his) “who crawled out of their caves as soon as they smelt fresh grants and residencies.”
Eleonora Simonova, the director of Nora-Druk Publishers, explained this long-standing Ukrainian view of Russia. “They appropriated the history of Kyivan Rus,” the medieval empire, centered in Kyiv, that brought Christianity to the eastern Slavs, “and created a legend about the common origin of the three peoples—Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian.” According to this view, even the name Russia was taken from that a Ukrainian kingdom, Rus, and the people the Ukrainians call “Muscovites,” she says, have very different origins. When Peter the Great renamed Muscovy Russia, “Russia” and “Russian” began to be equated with Muscovy, and everything Ukrainian was relegated to the margins.
With this came a dogged Russian attempt to destroy the Ukrainian language. “No language in world history has been as persecuted as Ukrainian,” Simonova says.
She gives centuries of examples, from Peter I’s banning of printing of books in Ukrainian to the forbidding, in 1863, of Ukrainian-language spiritual and popular educational literature with the words: “There was no separate Little Russian language and there can be none.” In 1876, Alexander II banned the printing and importation from abroad of any Ukrainian-language literature, and Ukrainian stage performances as well. In 1881 came the prohibition of Ukrainian for public school instruction and church sermons. In 1888, Alexander III banned the use of Ukrainian by official institutions and the baptism of children with Ukrainian names. The assault persisted in the Soviet era, all the way through the decision in 1984 to pay teachers who used Russian 15 percent more than teachers who used Ukrainian.
Putin’s recent proclamation that Ukrainians and Russians are a single people is part of this long tradition, and comes, as usual, with a brutal colonial war. If to the West this seems like a bizarre flashback, for Ukrainians it is simply a confirmation, once again, of what they see Russian culture as having always been: cruel, imperialistic, and refusing to allow neighboring peoples the simple right to exist.
Sheiko is impatient with the calls for reconciliation through culture. “The cultural front is no less important than the military,” he says, rejecting programs that suggest an equality between Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians. “The reaction of part of the cultural West to the war”—the desire to use culture to patch up these wounds—“is also deeply colonial.” It was far too early, he said, to know what to do with a hypothetical postwar Russia—or, as the Ukrainians put it, “where to find a mental hospital with 140 million beds.”
In this discourse, I was struck by how up-to-date the Ukrainian tactics were. They echo the demands of Palestinian activists to boycott Israel, and to reject fake “peace initiatives” that suggest an equivalence between colonizer and colonized. With their calls to shun the Russian culture that allows Russia to present itself as a civilized nation, they also echo recent calls by groups like Black Lives Matter to examine how culture has been used to mask old hierarchies.
Many Ukrainians find “Rashka” so poisoned by totalitarianism that it must be rejected wholesale. “It is a hundred percent the product of propaganda, and a tool for instilling military hysteria among the Russian population,” said Simonova. “Under the influence of propaganda, Russian society is dehumanized and has lost the line between good and evil.” Antonenko echoes her contention: “This is the culture of the devil and of evil.”
Still, Ukraine and Russia, just like so many other enemies—England and Ireland, Germany and France, Korea and Japan—will eventually have to live with each other. Couldn’t culture offer a place to start?
Sheiko says that “any reconciliation with Russia is far in the future: when Russia completely leaves the territory of Ukraine, including Crimea and Donbass; is held accountable for war crimes in an international tribunal; when the Putin regime falls and the next government, the remnants of civil society and the media acknowledge and apologize to Ukraine for all its atrocities; and when Russian society can critically consider its defeat and draw conclusions from it.” Because he finds all of this these hypotheticals to be fantastical, he sees the role of Ukrainian cultural diplomacy toward Russia to be “not dialogue but deterrence.”
In the face of this intransigence, I was a bit embarrassed by my simpering Western view of the role of culture. What about the belief in cultural exchange, in studying abroad, in translating books, in eating different foods, in building bridges? I remembered a phrase I once heard in Bosnia: westlicher Versöhnungsterror, “Western reconciliation terror.” This was the belief, which seems preposterous in a situation like Ukraine’s, that certain crimes could be erased by a friendly neighborhood concert or an “inclusive” panel at a book fair. It was a condescending idea premised on the notion that the world’s problems could be solved if people sat down with each other, got to know each other. It was a belief, in a post-religious world, that suffering was caused mainly by misunderstanding.
Had Ukrainians misunderstood Russian culture? Or are they right to be frustrated that the West didn’t hear what they have been saying for so long—that Russia is a culture permeated by evil? Perhaps we couldn’t hear it. We understand clashing interests and values. But I was struck by how often, in my conversations, that same word recurred. I used to laugh at Reagan’s notion of an evil empire. The Ukrainians never did.
“This is our field of Megiddo,” Anetta said. “The field of the last battle of good and evil. The light will win. Ukraine will win.”